Sunday, May 5, 2013

Galaxie 500: This Is Our Music (1990)

(Rough Trade)

!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

In retrospect, it's only too recognizable that this is the sound of a band falling apart -- really, more than that, the sound of a band that's already fallen apart doing their best to save face. Damon Krukowski would claim years later that the writing was on the wall for Galaxie 500 before Today, their debut, was even released. Their discography thus now takes a narrative track of inevitability, and the eagerness of an unusual young group gives way to something more ethereal, harder to grasp. The band's third and final album is their best, but its alterations to the extant groundwork are mostly subtle, as though Today and On Fire were merely earlier passes at these same goals, of stripping away everything except a raw, unguarded expressiveness that makes no apologies for its reverence toward pure aural pleasure. Cloudier, more tuned-in and hypnotic than even the Velvet Underground records that inspired them (the older band was too restless to sustain a mood like this), Galaxie 500 grab wisps of songs here, wisps like "Spook," and render electric serenades. Dean Wareham never sounded lovelier, or more resigned and haunted. When he apologizes for everything, the weather included, you know he really is sorry.

It might have seemed there was no way for this extraordinary group to become more aggressively minimalistic. The trick, simple enough, is that the stripping down is mostly in the songwriting; if the group disintegrates, it's only into beauty and -- more than anything -- sensuality, a laconic swinging that neither of the prior records delivered to this extent. The space between the notes, the lift and lilt in each affected, fleeting moment, are where this drama lives. The wavering, weak, despairing, glorious "Hearing Voices" is probably their best song, a creation so stirringly delicate it's as though you can hear the trio all individually surrendering control of the performance and somehow coming out better for it. "Voices" lyrically echoes "Goodnight Irene," a song that predates rock & roll itself, and that's a perfect line to draw, for despite its immense debt to the rock narrative, this is music that seems to spew forth from an indeterminate, almost supernaturally distant past. It's as unfettered and uncluttered in its fashion as Mickey & Sylvia's highly relevant "Love Is Strange."

The easier (but no less salient) comparison, of course, is to the third album by another band whose entire body of work was a tracking of their slow-motion dismantling: Big Star's Sister Lovers. Indeed, much of Alex Chilton's early solo work is spiritually connected to This Is Our Music, but the evocative chaos of "Kanga Roo" seems directly reprised by a song like "Summertime" -- press your ear to its achingly beautiful melody, its intense guitars sinking into a never-assaultive sea of noise, and vague, surreal lyrics like "Goin' to the movies / I found a shelter from the sun." As much as the chords and arrangements remain unmistakably familiar from Galaxie 500's stock in trade, their library of riffs still tiny, these songs break apart and sway and each feverishly captures an emotional freeze-frame, as much for the listener as for the band. Time seems to stop for a bit, or at least moves at a decelerated, drugged pace.

In an appropriate analogy to the strings on Sister Lovers, This Is Our Music boasts a new sonic fearlessness on Galaxie 500's part, with musical flourishes that indicate a willingness to evolve, and a skepticism about the drawbacks that lie in prog and post-rock's usual trappings. The peaceful sweetness of "Way Up High" is adorably delivered by a simple flute (yes, flute) performance that backs up and pushes back against Wareham, and that doesn't even linger in the memory after the Renaissance festival ending of "King of Spain, Part Two." There's even a touch of swinging funk, a Roger McGuinn-ish solo, and an ending directly from "A Day in the Life" in "Melt Away," Wareham reveling in all of the above.

Still, if the driving, quietly drunken madness of "Hearing Voices" wasn't enough to summarize this brief career, two cuts indicate just how far afield Galaxie 500 landed from their earliest work -- not far at all, yet worlds away in terms of a willingness to be playful, the final obstacle to really sinking into their more dour debut and sophomore efforts. Opener and single "Fourth of July," oblique lyrics about dog biscuits and all, is downright cheery! It forecasts Luna with a refrain about feeling "all right when you smile" and engagingly brings us Dean Wareham going on and on like Moulty, but the cumulative effect is pure exhilaration. And as accomplished as the band had already proven themselves with prior cover songs, their version of Yoko Ono's lullaby "Listen, the Snow Is Falling!" is enough to leave you pinned and awestruck even after you've heard it dozens of times. Naomi Yang's voice travels over and underneath the initially buoyant and sparkling arrangement that eventually bursts into sonically exuberant mayhem -- all the while perfectly suggesting the desolate winter Ono's song seeks to bring to life. (Our only regret is that the equally brilliant VU cover "Here She Comes Now," a shoegaze triumph that actually betters the original, wasn't able to make the LP cut, though it's included as a bonus track on most CD versions.)

No doubt dreariness has its benefits; "Hearing Voices" isn't exactly much more a slice of pop bliss than was "Tugboat," after all. But what makes This Is Our Music such a masterpiece of its form is that, however much the band has split into two factions, it merits a personal and deep connection to its songs, to the individual band members, and mostly to an emotional cycle -- a carefully structured one like that of Pet Sounds, not so much the mad tea party of Sister Lovers. Even more than in the case of Today, I find myself yearning to hear this record when I'm in a certain mode of isolation and reflection -- which sounds awfully moony, but pop music is designed to serve various personal utilities, and this is a record that functions in a manner thoroughly exclusive to its art, pulling apart and investigating and toying with an established band's sound to give them the market on a feeling. This Is Our Music finds a way to do something that only a full-length album can do; it's the warmest of all alternative rock recordings of its era, and sets the table for Loveless the following year. Hearing either record in the right moment can give the sensation of floating, or something similarly transportive. Very few records can do that at all, much less sustain it properly with good songs and performances -- and even fewer can call back to that special instance of being completely taken in and seduced, time after time, each time you hear them. It's a pity that the sun now set on Galaxie 500, but I doubt they could ever have improved on this.

Today (1988)
On Fire (1989)

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